We are studying James 3:13-18 and James 5:7-12 as the conclusion to our study of the book of James as a wisdom text, and also as the conclusion to our “summer of wisdom.” [However, James will be coming up again in the Fall, as the conclusion to 13 weeks of studies on love! Those start next week.] This concluding look at James focuses on the character of wisdom, and finally ties everything back to the patient endurance with which the book began. Here are some notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are picking up where we left off last week, finishing out chapter three, skipping all of chapter four and the first part of chapter five, and then jumping back in to the middle of five, with James’s teaching on patience. [So, for anyone just now joining us, there’s more on the context of the book of James as a whole here.]
What we’re skipping IS part of the context for what we’re reading, though. If we read the last part of chapter three as having to do with how to deal with contentious, self-interested rivalries in the community, ideally by not having them, then chapter four develops that theme further. It diagnoses the cause of such conflicts: cravings, for worldly rewards. Cravings have come up before (James 1:12-16). They were related to endurance then, and they will be related to patient endurance in chapter five, too. But first chapter four will also have some comments on pride, evil-minded judging of others, boasting about our plans, aka “counting our chickens before they’re hatched,” and some cautionary words for rich Christians. [Calling people out for being oppressors is Biblical, it turns out; James 5:1-6 reads like a mean tweet thread.]
These texts show up in the lectionary. James 3:13-4:3, 7-8 is the epistle for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. James 5:7-10 is one of the readings for the Third Sunday in Advent Year A – which pointedly contextualizes the theme of “patience until the coming of the Lord.”
CLOSER READING: It occurs to me that maybe James 3:13-18 ought to be required reading before faculty meetings.
In v13, we see this book’s recurrent emphasis on “doing,” this time as a demonstration of “wisdom and understanding.” Wisdom and understanding are to be shown by good conduct, by works done with gentleness or, alternatively, meekness or humility.
In v14, “boastful and false to the truth” seems to refer to a false claim; the implication seems to be that people who harbor envy – literally, zeal – and selfish ambition – literally rivalry – are NOT wise and understanding. Rather, the wisdom “from above” is different. This “from above” is the same “from above,” or “from the beginning,” so, “anew” that shows up in John 3, by the way.
The list of adjectives in v15 seems possibly to target the popular philosophy [literally “love of wisdom”] of the day [and perhaps today, as well]: earthly, “natural,” [psychikē] and “daimon-like.” Especially because the daimon – whether a semi-divine being, or a kind of guiding or driving spirit – did play a role in classical philosophy. That would be the kind of philosophy Tertullian had in mind when he said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” An academic, secular “wisdom and understanding” associated with the rivalry of personalities and schools, competition for sponsorship and prestige, and an elitist distance from practical life.
By contrast, genuine wisdom looks very different, according to James. The list of adjectives in v17 emphasizes the de-escalation and resolution of conflicts and a kind of non-judgmental or non-discriminatory, sincere (not hypocritical) cultivation of peaceful community life.
The image in v18 suggests that the peace is, itself, the seed of righteousness; that is, those who sow peace, reap righteousness. Those who sow discord, on the other hand … well, see v16.
Skipping ahead to James 5:7, we seem to have come full circle. The book began in James 1:2 with the advice to consider it joy when one undergoes trials, and with praise for endurance. Now the author once again praises endurance (v11). Patience is the appropriate attitude; the agrarian analogy in v7 implies that “things take the time they take.”
The word translated “strengthen” in v8 is literally something like “resolve on a particular direction.”
The word translated “grumble” in v9 is literally “groan” – the way someone might groan when they find out So-and-so is going to be on that task force or at this party. The way the creation is groaning about us humans in Romans 8:22. It’s a vivid and distinctly realistic bit of advice.
I find v12 quite perplexing. It seems a little random, but considering what we’ve learned about this author, I doubt it is. But I haven’t seen the connection between swearing an oath and what we’ve been reading so far – yet. So – suggestions welcome.
Overall, we get a definite vision from this book of what a genuine Christian community will look and feel like. Egalitarian – that is, not favoring rich over poor; peaceful and kind; focused more on helping people who need help, the orphans and widows, than on arguing and wordy debates, or on gaining prestige or popularity. We may want to think about how well people would say that vision describes the Christian community we’re familiar with ourselves; and how we ourselves contribute to the realization of that vision.